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The Apostolic Mission to India: Was it Thomas or Nathaniel?

2017-08-25 1:16 PM | Dave

In the Christian Bible, although Bartholomew is referenced on a list of the 12 disciples in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts, he is otherwise mentioned very infrequently, and was often believed to be Nathaniel. In some histories, it was the apostle Bartholomew who undertook a mission to India. The book of John, which has no formal list of the twelve, mentions Nathaniel in John, chapter 21, where he is included in a partial list of the disciples. The Catholic Church has declared: “coupled with the fact that the other evangelists always associate Philip with Bartholomew makes it probable that Bartholomew is the same person as Nathaniel.” The confusion about the apostles Nathaniel and Bartholomew has hopefully been cleared up in The Urantia Book (The UB). In its only reference to Bartholomew, The UB points out that this was Nathaniel’s father’s name (The UB, 139:6.9).

John’s gospel tells us that Philip brought Nathaniel to Jesus, also confirmed in The UB, “Nathaniel, the sixth and last of the apostles to be chosen by the Master himself, was brought to Jesus by his friend Philip.” (139:6.1). When Jesus sent forth the apostles “two and two,” (138:1.1) they traveled together.

Perhaps the confusion over the two names led to the persistent uncertainty over who went to India, Nathaniel or Thomas. The UB makes this definitive statement about Nathaniel who, after the Jewish holiday of Pentecost departed for lands to the east, “beyond Mesopotamia,” after Jesus’ crucifixion in 30 AD.

“Nathaniel differed increasingly with Peter regarding preaching about Jesus in the place of proclaiming the former gospel of the kingdom. This disagreement became so acute by the middle of the following month [following the ascension of Jesus on May 18, AD 30] that Nathaniel withdrew, going to Philadelphia to visit Abner and Lazarus; and after tarrying there for more than a year, he went on into the lands beyond Mesopotamia preaching the gospel as he understood it.” (193:6.4) This chronology would date the beginning of Nathaniel’s journey to approximately June or July of 31 AD.

There are two ancient historical accounts about the mission of Saint “Bartholomew” in India, the earliest written by Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea (early 4th century), and another by Saint Jerome (late 4th century). Both refer to the reported visit of Pantaenus from the Church of Alexandria to India in the 2nd century. In The UB version of events, “Pantaenus taught Clement and then went on to follow Nathaniel in proclaiming Christ in India.” (195:3.10)

However, another mystery dogs our steps, the discovery of Matthew’s Gospel in India in the third century. Eusebius writes that, while in India, St. Pantaenus was shown a copy of it written in Hebrew. We no longer have a surviving copy of this text in Hebrew, Pantaenus was told that St. Bartholomew brought it there when he came to preach to the Hindu nation. Could St. Matthew's Gospel have been completed by the time of Nathaniel’s departure date, 31 AD? Even the earliest date put forth by bible scholars places the writing of “the First Gospel” at AD 50, and most don’t even accept such an early date. How could Nathaniel have carried it to India? Did he have a copy of his fellow apostle’s and friend’s first draft? It doesn’t seem likely he returned for it at a later time.

The studies of Friar A.C. Perumalil SJ and Moraes hold that the Bombay region on the Konkan coast, a region which may have been known as the ancient city Kalyan, was where Saint Bartholomew conducted his missionary activities. Some believe this history became mixed with that of the Syrian Thomas Christians also known as the Nasrani.

I think The UB makes an attempt to alleviate the Thomas/Nathaniel confusion with this clarification: “Nathaniel's father (Bartholomew) died shortly after Pentecost, after which this apostle went into Mesopotamia and India proclaiming the glad tidings of the kingdom and baptizing believers. His brethren never knew what became of their onetime philosopher, poet, and humorist. But he also was a great man in the kingdom and did much to spread his Master's teachings, even though he did not participate in the organization of the subsequent Christian church. Nathaniel died in India.” (139:6.9)

What about the persistent tradition in India, and here in America, that the apostle Thomas preached in the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu? The St. Thomas or Syrian Christians (Nasrani), presently 7 million strong, believe he arrived by sea at Maliankara, or Muziris, on the Malabar Coast in 52 AD. His founding of the seven Christian churches in Kerala is celebrated in a modern ballad, “The Song of the Lord Thomas.” Some of the tradition had mostly been forgotten until the arrival of the Portuguese in 1500’s when his grave and the “remains of the murdered saint” were supposedly discovered by a Portuguese priest. Thomas died there in 72 A.D. However, the Catholic Church does not accept the date, nor does the church validate his supposed martyrdom.

The later arrival of Canai Thomas, a Nazarene, or Syrian Christian, in 450 A.D. was grafted onto the earlier Kerala Christian stories of St. Thomas. Many think this later evangelist is the one around whom the traditions have gathered. Scholars dismiss the stories of Jesus’ apostle preaching there as “Thomas romances,” but these historians have not been able to prove to the local people that the research doesn’t validate the stories.

Chapter one of the book by HC Perumalil and ER Hambye, “Christianity in India- a History in Ecumenical Perspective,” skirts the controversy by accepting and discussing both the work of Saint Bartholomew and Saint Thomas in India.


Christianity in this predominantly Hindu country has not been a resounding success, Hinduism being the religion adopted by 80% of the population. The total number of Christians in India according to the 2001 census was 24 million, or 2.34 percent of the population. The 2011 census showed a further, although insignificant, decline to 2.30 percent. We should note that the number of Hindus has also been declining since 1951. Hopefully, the expanded cosmology and gospel message of The Urantia Book, along with its more complete story of Jesus’ life, will do better.


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